In a welcome “good news” story for the world’s carbon stocks and biodiversity, the felling of old-growth forest for oil palm plantations on the island of Borneo has tracked a steady decline since its 2012 peak.
That is according to the revamped Borneo Atlas, a new tool which combines annual satellite data from the past 18 years with information on land ownership. It creates the clearest picture yet of the relationship between deforestation and the development of industrial oil palm and pulp-and-paper plantations on Borneo, which is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
The free web atlas developed by scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) could have significant implications for how companies and governments operate in and around the world’s remaining old-growth forests.
It is well-known that oil palm and pulpwood cultivation must be de-linked from deforestation in tropical forests where major palm oil producers operate in order to conserve their function as critical carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots. But on the ground – especially in remote places – it can be challenging to ascertain where deforestation is occurring, as well as what and who is actually driving it.
Now, anyone can log onto the atlas and see within seconds exactly how, when and where plantations have expanded across Borneo and under whose watch.
“The Borneo Atlas brings this information to users’ fingertips,” said CIFOR scientist and project leader David Gaveau. “Its interactive time-lapse animations turn the data into living maps that let you see the dynamic land cover changes occurring anywhere in Borneo over the past 18 years.”
Using the Atlas data, scientists have already determined that while annual deforestation rates peaked in 2016, clearance for plantations made up a decreasing portion of this total from 2012-2018, due to a range of factors, including low palm oil prices, Indonesia’s moratoriums on new oil palm and pulpwood plantations, and on the conversion of peatlands.
According to Gaveau, while there are a number of other satellite based tools out there for real-time monitoring, “the added value of this tool is the historical annual change linking forest loss and plantations expansion.”
Users can track the actions of particular companies over time, and check whether they are clearing new areas to establish plantations, or planting on land that has already been deforested for other reasons. That makes it a powerful tool for keeping an eye on company activities, and how they measure up to what they say in their reports.
And that is one reason the tool is already proving popular with government agencies, at both provincial and national levels.
“As a monitoring tool, this atlas is very useful,” said Sasmita Nugroho of the Directorate of Prevention of Impacts of Environment and Sector Policy. “It can help detect [incidents] quickly, before further steps can be taken. This is a very reliable support tool to add to our existing official system.”
“They like the platform, because it provides them with information that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” said Agus Salim, the co-creator of the atlas, adding that government agencies often rely on company reporting to track plantation expansion. “They don’t have the means to verify independently whether these numbers are true or not, and that’s something we can do very easily within the platform,” he said.
The tool will also allow companies to meet growing demand in the no-deforestation market for recovery and restoration plans aimed at compensating for past deforestation, alongside moratoria on future land clearing.
“Because the data are historical and annual, they can be used to calculate the past deforestation footprint of companies – and the timing of deforestation events – with precision,” Gaveau said. “These data can then be used to calculate the size and scale of their remediation and compensation schemes.”
There are caveats. “There are always going to be errors in the data set,” Gaveau said, and CIFOR does not take responsibility for any action pursued as a result of the information shared there, but the maps can certainly point toward areas for further investigation. In fact, the Borneo Atlas has already revealed areas where plantations appear to have encroached on protected areas.
Overall, hopes are high the project will improve the governance of forests, peatlands and plantations by increasing transparency and accountability of plantation and logging companies, he said.
A number of national agencies within the Indonesian government have registered their interest in the development of a similar product for the island of Sumatra, which produces the most palm oil in the country, as well as being a major hub for acacia pulpwood plantations.
Beyond that, scientists hope this high level of monitoring capacity and accountability will become the “new normal” for conservation and plantation development in years to come.
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